Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book II. The Labour.
V. Sub Umbra.
SOMETIMES in the night-time Gilliatt woke and peered into the darkness.
He felt a strange emotion.
His eyes were opened upon the black night; the situation was dismal, full of disquietude.
There is such a thing as the pressure of darkness.
A strange roof of shadow; a deep obscurity, which no diver can explore; a light mingled with that obscurity, of a strange, subdued, and sombre kind; floating atoms of rays, like a dust of seeds or of ashes; millions of lamps but no illumining; a vast sprinkling of fire, of which no man knows the secret; a diffusion of shining points, like a drift of sparks arrested in their course; the disorder of the whirlwind, with the fixedness of death; a mysterious and abysmal depth; an enigma, at once showing and concealing its face; the Infinite in its mask of darkness-these are the synonyms of night. Its weight lies heavily on the soul of man.
This union of all mysteries-the mystery of the Cosmos and the mystery of Fate-oppresses human reason.
The pressure of darkness acts in inverse proportion upon different kinds of natures. In the presence of night man feels his own incompleteness. He perceives the dark void and is sensible of infirmity. It is like the vacancy of blindness. Face to face with night man bends, kneels, prostrates himself, crouches on the earth, crawls towards a cave, or seeks for wings. Almost always he shrinks from that vague presence of the Infinite Unknown. He asks himself what it is, he trembles and bows the head. Sometimes he desires to go to it.
To go whither?
He can only answer, "Yonder."
But what is that? and what is there?
This curiosity is evidently forbidden to the spirit of man; for all around him the roads which bridge that gulf are broken up or gone. No arch exists for him to span the Infinite. But there is attraction in forbidden knowledge, as in the edge of the abyss. Where the footstep cannot tread, the eye may reach; where the eye can penetrate no farther, the mind may soar. There is no man, however feeble or insufficient his resources, who does not essay. According to his nature he questions or recoils before that mystery. With some it has the effect of repressing; with others it enlarges the soul. The spectacle is sombre, indefinite.
Is the night calm and cloudless? It is then a depth of shadow. Is it stormy? It is then a sea of cloud. Its limitless deeps reveal themselves to us, and yet baffle our gaze, close themselves against research, but open to conjecture. Its innumerable dots of light only make deeper the obscurity beyond. Jewels, scintillations, stars; existences revealed in the unknown universes; dread defiances to man's approach; landmarks of the infinite creation; boundaries there, where there are no bounds; sea-marks impossible, and yet real, numbering the fathoms of those infinite deeps. One microscopic glittering point; then another; then another; imperceptible, yet enormous. Yonder light is a focus; that focus is a star; that star is a sun; that sun is a universe; that universe is nothing. For all numbers are as zero in the presence of flee infinite.
These worlds, which yet are nothing, exist. Through this fact we feel the difference which separates the being nothing from the not to be.
All these vague imaginings, increased and intensified by solitude, weighed upon Gilliatt.
He understood them little, but he felt them. His was a powerful intellect clouded; a great spirit wild and untaught.